The Bread Thread
"Getting my bread to rise as much as I want it to is a continuing challenge. I appreciate that bread making is an art that's going to require (perhaps a lifetime) of practice, and that the perfect loaf may forever elude me."
I started baking our everyday sandwhich bread in 2002, and the first year I made some lovely brick-like door stops. With trial and error, my baking has improved tremendously, and I've found my way to a recipe that is indeed quite edible. (But not fool-proof, if you will pardon the pun.)
Knowing breadmaking is an art that will require a lifetime of practice helps me along when I'm staring at a flat, dense loaf that REFUSES to rise (as I was last night). I've gleaned information from plenty of books and bakers, but have found that nothing replaces hands-on time in the kitchen. I'm curious if there are other hounds out there committed to regular bread baking?
I used to bake bread regularly, and I agree with you that experience is what counts - the feel of the dough tells you if it's going to be right or not.
But my husband is the real bread eater in the family, so I encouraged him to try baking. I gave him Joe Ortiz' Village Baker as a starting point. It took a few tries but he now regularly turns out dynamite ciabatta which we also use for the crust of our grilled pizza.
I'm trying to get him to start on Steve Sullivan's walnut levain (from Baking with Julia) - absolutely wonderful bread. I bought a loaf from Acme when I was last in San Francisco and was amazed at the flavor.
Welcome to primitive bread baking. I have had great success lately baking simple bread using a fork and large stainless mixing bowl. I use no electric mixer or bread machine.
Make a sponge the night before. Add honey to 3/4 cup of warm water by plunging the tips of a fork's tines in the honey and stirring. Proof 1 tsp. of rapid-rise yeast in the water by letting it bloom for about 10 minutes. Pour the proofed yeast into a large mixing bowl that contains 3/4 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour and thoroughly mix with the fork. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and allow to ferment overnight.
Next morning mix following dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Another cup and one-quarter of unbleached all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons Kosher salt, 2 cups of bread flour, and a teaspoon of oregano or marjoram. Proof some more yeast just as was done the night before.
When yeast has bloomed, add it to the sponge along with 2 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Stir the mixture with your fork. Start adding the dry ingredients using about a 1/2 cup at time and stir with fork. Continue until all flour is incorporated always stirring with fork. If dough becomes too stiff, use your hand to form dough until all is incorporated.
Dough will be somewhat sticky. Spread flour on working surface before pouring dough onto it. Start kneading dough adding a little flour until the dough is firm and not sticky. That'll take 8 to 10 minutes. Wash bowl in which dough was mixed with plain water. Dry it with paper toweling. Add a little oil to bowl and cover the entire interior surface with the oil. Place the dough in bowl and turn it so that oil entirely covers the dough. Cover the bowl with the plastic wrap used the night before. Allow the dough to rise in a warm place until more than double in size, about 1 hour. We have 2 ovens now, so I heat one to 105 degrees, turn it off, and place bowl in oven.
Spread more flour on working surface that has been cleaned after previous kneading. Pour risen dough out on working surface and gently form 2 loaves or a dozen rolls. Place the formed dough on Release aluminum foil which rests on a large baking sheet. Don't try to perfectly shape them...let them take their own form as they rise a 2nd time for another hour.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees with a pizza baking stone in it if you have one. Place baking sheet on preheated stone and bake for about 25-30 minutes. Spray oven with water in a spray bottle 3 times within the first 10 minutes of baking.
Take baked bread or rolls out of oven and allow to cool on raised wire racks. The bread should be crusty, but the interior bread should have a light texture with lots of spaces due to yeast releasing fermentation gas.
The resulting baked product should be like the Italian bread called 'ciabatta' which means 'slipper' in Italian. I like to make rolls, about a dozen, because a given roll is just the right size for a sandwich. They also freeze well.
Buona fortuna e buon appetito!
I'm in the camp of "primitive baking" too. My only special equipment is a pizza stone to help even out the heat in my gas oven. I make quite a few batter breads (little/no kneading), including an adaptation of a foccacia in Nick Malgieri's How to Bake book. Refrigerator rolls are fun, too...after kneading, you allow the dough to rise overnight in the fridge, and just pinch off small amounts to make rolls, which rise very quickly after being out of the fridge. The dough will keep for several days in the fridge, and you can have hot dinner rolls without same-day work.
My most notable recent failure: I tried to make a wild-yeast pain de levain, using a slurry of organic flour & spring water to capture some "local yeasts". Turns out this isn't such a good idea if you're downwind of post-Katrina New Orleans--I captured all sorts of nasty-smelling foul microorganisms & my starter went south in a matter of hours. Maybe I'll wait for the weather to cool off and try again.
re: Hungry Celeste
Wow, sorry about that! I would definitely be leery of our wild strains, they might be a little wilder than anticipated right now. I had been considering starting some sour dough, but maybe I'll just hold off on that.
I used to be a primitive baker, (I assume that just means hand-kneading?) until I discovered that my Kitchenaid does a better job of getting it to "windowpane" stage than I do. I'm currently stuck on a multigrain recipe I found on the web somewhere.
re: Hungry Celeste
When my best friend in Tuscon called to say her sourdough started died, I spent a day driving around Berkeley (Cheeseboard, Acme) and the San Francisco wharf area with a jar full of flour and water. Her mom picked up the jar on the way to Tuscon and Lynn's still using it 12 years later. Amazing pancakes!
I was pleased by the effect of high gluten flour on my efforts. And I got a twenty-five pound bag at Costco for about six fifty.
I do bake some kind of yeast bread every weekend. I don't have time during the week to bake so I spend my evenings reading baking books to come up with a recipe for the weekend. For the past few Saturdays, I have been making kolaches using different recipes. I can't say that I've been taken with any of the recipes yet but I'm getting closer.